Opinion: ULURP shouldn’t be taken for granted

New York City Council Members should have the goal of saying “yes” to developers going through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and affordable housing is at stake.

After some hesitation and later negotiations, New York City Council Member Tiffany Caban through her support behind Halletts North, a 1340-unit complex in Astoria, Queens.

After some hesitation and later negotiations, New York City Council Member Tiffany Caban through her support behind Halletts North, a 1340-unit complex in Astoria, Queens. Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

Everyone knew Bruce Teitelbaum would face an uphill battle to get his 917-apartment proposal for 145th Street, One45, through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. In its first renditions, One45’s affordability concessions looked like scraps, and the project drew the ire of local New York City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan. While Teitelbaum offered hundreds more affordable units when the proposal made it to the City Council, it was not enough to earn Richardson Jordan’s approval. But even after pulling the project in May, he was not finished with the site. In September, he announced, much to the chagrin of everyone, that he was building a truck depot.

Not long after, a similar project’s fate was at the hands of another hard-to-please council member. This time, the developers behind Halletts North, a 1340-unit complex in Astoria, vied for City Council Member Tiffany Cabán’s approval. However, unlike Richardson Jordan, Cabán surprised everyone and backed the project. Despite initial reservations, Cabán negotiated with the developers to get the income levels for the 335 affordable units at or below 80% of the Average Median Income. Instead of a truck depot, Astoria will get hundreds of deeply affordable homes.

Now, another major housing development is heading through the approval process. The fate of Innovation QNS, a 2700-unit redevelopment scheme for Astoria, rests in the hands of City Council Member Julie Won, who has expressed opposition to the plan. Much like Richardson Jordan, Won sees the affordable housing concessions as insufficient. Despite the developers increasing the proportion of affordable units to 40%, Won has demanded that the project contains 55% affordable housing. But this time, Won has seen the consequences of One45’s rejection and Halletts North’s approval. Juxtaposing those outcomes against our city’s worsening housing crisis, it should be clear that with ULURP, the goal must be to get to “yes.”

Most proposals brought to the table are already improvements over what is allowed “as-of-right.” That doesn’t mean it will be good. However, given that any residential rezoning requires at least 20% affordable housing, New Yorkers are already starting with below-market-rate housing on the table. For most areas, 20% is insufficient, but it's more affordable homes than the as-of-right alternative.

And "as-of-right" doesn’t always equate to housing since not all zoning districts permit housing. One45 was in a C8-3 district that allows automotive services, like showrooms, repair shops and depots. Innovation QNS and Halletts North are predominantly in M1-1 districts that permit light manufacturing and industrial services. Neither C8-3 nor M1-1 districts allow for housing as of right. Cabán referenced this point in her support of Halletts North. That risk analysis is something that Won and everyone else needs to perform. Recognizing what developers can build without review should make anyone receptive to discussing rezonings. Without these zoning changes, we get more of what the city doesn’t need and squander housing opportunities.

Debates about affordability and public concessions are both inevitable and necessary. As a negotiation tactic, developers often initially offer the minimum, and oftentimes, adjustments are warranted. (Developers don’t always negotiate in good faith either, so a healthy dose of skepticism is reasonable.) However, we can’t be consumed by artificial rubrics and benchmarks and let them derail the chance for affordable housing. At a certain point, quibbling about percentages becomes useless. If we can move the needle, we should, but we can’t bow out when it doesn’t go as far as we want it. The aspect of financial feasibility also comes into play. Ask for enough concessions, and the project might require additional government subsidies, which defeats the purpose of mandatory inclusionary housing. Fifty-five percent of zero homes means zero affordable homes. Being beholden to affordability benchmarks is not something we can afford to do when the alternative is no affordable housing or no housing at all. 

Additionally, squabbles about other metrics, such as density, are not as necessary. Density reductions are rarely warranted. When they do happen, they result in significant reductions in affordable housing. The focus should be maximizing the amount of housing that gets built, both affordable and market rate. (If anything, density adjustments should result in increases.) Killing a project because it doesn’t reach affordability benchmarks is not ideal, but killing a project because it’s too large is asinine.

We should also want these approvals to happen on the first go-around. ULURP is already a tedious process. It can take up to 215 days to review applications, not including the time projects sit in pre-certification, which can vary significantly. Every time we insist that developers scrap their plans and reapply with a new project, we add months, if not years, to the timeline of new housing. That is also years worth of added costs to housing, which makes affordability more difficult. It is a proposition that developers won’t accept and a gamble the city cannot afford. Good final proposals can come from lackluster applications. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

Not every rezoning will be approved or should be. Rezonings are not appropriate everywhere, and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing has legitimate shortcomings. However, we should want something to be approved. We are building housing at an abysmal pace. Whenever we can increase housing production, we must do so. Initial proposals aren't always ideal, but rejecting those proposals returns us to a status quo that we can no longer accept. 

And even with process improvements and attitude changes, ULURP needs to be reserved for only the most significant neighborhood changes.

ULURP is the city’s primary method of producing privately financed affordable housing when a zoning change is approved and triggers mandatory inclusionary housing. That’s an unsustainable method for producing affordable housing. Not only is the process too tedious for everyone involved, but the resulting projects are close to what as-of-right construction should be. The city is fully capable of making this happen as well. Neighborhood rezonings in high-opportunity areas push us in that direction. State initiatives like lifting the residential 12 floor area ratio cap would also help. ULURP should be a supplementary process where developers go much further above and beyond (literally), not where developers eke out projects that offer the bare minimum of what this city needs. It should still be a part of our solution, but it needs to take a back seat.

Austin Celestin is a junior at New York University studying Urban Design and Journalism.